“Some men give up their designs when they have almost reached the goal; While others, on the contrary, obtain a victory by exerting, at the last moment, more vigorous efforts than ever before.” -- Herodotus
I'm not quite sure what drove me to buy Ninja Gaiden II on launch day. I'm not usually the type of person that anxiously waits for the emergence of a hyped title, but there I was, in my local Big Box retailer, getting the game alongside a promotional Ryu Hayabusa poster. The clerk gushed over the MSRP ($100) while I listened to my girlfriend sigh as she pictured me hanging my shame proudly. Like a Greek chorus, the voices of Internet gamers warned that I would be in for a world of hurt and frustration. I put their warnings aside, the bunch of whiny Cassandras that they are, as I popped the game in and salivated over the wanton destruction and dismemberment that my ninja steel would sow.
A week later, as my ego recovered from the atrociously hard difficulty ramp that vigorously pummeled my psyche, I traded it in for Dragon Ball Z: Burst Limit. All I could hear was the disembodied clatter of a thousand Model-M keyboards typing “I told you so.”
I've already heaped praise on the classic Ninja Gaiden (NES) and championed the flow of the modern Ninja Gaiden combat system. Having missed out on previous ventures, I eagerly jumped into the HD-compliant sequel hoping that I wouldn't be missing out on too much. The good news is that the plot in Gaiden II is just window dressing. I never felt that I had stepped into the middle of a grand story and missed out on all the setup.
The game's story is a lot like a $15.00 curtain set you pick up at Ikea. Functional, simplistic, without too much flair or flash. The scenes that progress the game's paper-thin plot served as little more than a chance to put down my controller or cry at my own inadequacy. The real star of the show was the impressively fluid and creative battle mechanics that enabled me to rend bone from sinew. I never really cared for the array of blades and sticks, as the Wolverine-like set of claws became my personal favorite. It's unfortunate that the rest didn't offer much to me, but that tends to happen when more than two or three weapons are put into action games. Likewise, I largely ignored the combo menu and chose to freestyle my combat. Who needs instructions to kick butt? Not me.
But a button masher this game is not. Make no mistake about it, I was punished severely for venturing into a crowd of enemies without a strategy. Even something as simple as “retreat once hit” proved to be a valuable battle-plan. The memorization aspect of certain combat scenarios definitely didn't win my praise, though. I quickly made friends with the continue screen, and we held long parlays over how damn cheap my previous death had been. To compound my rage, the programmers saw fit to return me to the intro screen of my stage after every failure. Why thank you, I had no idea I was in “The Lycanthrope's Castle.” I just love seeing the purple prose of the stage description pop up every time, too. Seeing this death after death was exasperating. Hence, the blood-slick the luster wore off.
When your game includes an achievement that's unlocked once the player hits 100 deaths, you know there's frustration abound. Gaiden II delivers in spades. Team Ninja remains unaware of how to balance their gory battle choreography with the immediate needs of the player. Cue aggravation as Spaz is juggled by a volley of unseen rockets, pincushioned by exploding arrows, or slimed by off-screen dragon snot. Amazingly, there are even times when the melee view is obscured by an errant wall or corner. I spent the entire game wondering how it is that a development team could make such a promising game and blunder through the camera coding.
I soon realized that Gaiden II was meant to be played in short bursts - a level here, a midboss defeat there - and it worked out to a more enjoyable trial. When I reached the final boss, however, something just clicked and said “that's it, no more fun out of this one.”
I'm sorry, Ninja Gaiden II, you've got a fantastic combat mechanic and the way you make references to the NES original is cute, but that doesn't make up for the feeling that you want to make me suffer, that I'm not hardcore enough to hang out with you. I ... I think we need to break up.
I ejected the disc, quietly put the game back into its box, and walked out the door. 30 minutes later, I returned home with something else. A shiny, simplistic bimbo that wouldn't shove complexity in my face like a dominatrix.
Enter the Dragonballs
I decided that Dragon Ball Z: Burst Limit would be the perfect chicken soup to comfort my wounded body. It was based off of a show which I had grown up with, had a simplistic but functional fighting engine, and by all accounts seemed like something I could play for an hour then walk away from, satiated. I was looking for a middling experience, and not a grand challenge. A chilli dog and chips, not a savory five-course Moroccan feast.
Fortunately, the game delivered for me in a big way. I breezed through most of the story mode in six hours. Unlike Gaiden II, whose normal difficulty equates to “advanced, with elements of hard”, Burst Limit's "normal" lets a player coast for most of the game. Like the numerous Dragon Ball Z fighters that have come before it (Budokai, Tenkaichi), Burst Limit admirably captures the animated series' dizzying portrayal of high-speed fighting, high-powered fireball duels, and corny drama. This isn't a deep fighter but it certainly pleased my inner otaku. I even found their cut-scenes to be faithful to the source material and not too horrible, though the inability to skip them was a bit of a pill.
In light of my favorable experiences, I can't really say it's a good buy. While I certainly enjoyed it, I can't be too certain that an average, non-anime literate person will be interested in it for more than a few minutes.
The fact of the matter is that the game feels desolate. The story mode does little more than jump from one battle to the next, giving you a short motivational scene before and a post-fight drama dose after a fight is won. There is an assumption that one knows exactly what has, and will, happen to the characters. This was almost insulting when I unlocked a Bonus Scene which runs through the events of the anime series in about 4 minutes. The game designers had enough time to render out these scenes for a quick clip but couldn't be bothered to include a more comprehensive story for new players? For shame.
It's a good thing that the game comes with a copy of DBZ's first seven episodes as a bonus, but that too serves as a sticking point. With the story being so lacking, it feels as though the fighter was more of a promotional item for FuniMation's updated series redub than an actual fully-realized game. This is troublesome because prior fighters in the series were able to not only recreate the storyline, but also have a sizable character roster. Obviously the next entry in the series will patch up the flaws, but how many times will they release the same game with minute tweaks? More to the point, how many times will I allow myself to buy it? This is almost as bad as the Madden machine.
Like Gaiden II's half-baked doughyness, Burst Limit left me feeling like the developers could have taken a few extra steps to create a stronger experience but instead settled for a serviceable game engine that primarily works as a fanboy placebo for all the current-gen owners that want superpowered burly fighters at HD resolutions. So while it could be a better game, it's a perfectly fine average game as it is, and though it falls short in its story mode, it does have a few challenge modes that'll keep me coming back to it every now and again.
Back to Basics
While this entry may not serve as a warm welcome to the exciting gruntfest that is the Dragon Ball Z universe, the nurturing difficulty and familiar faces comforted me after the debacle that Gaiden II turned out to be. Burst Limit rewarded my mediocrity, reminded me of waking up at 6 on a Saturday morning to watch badly dubbed anime, and in turn, kept me engaged enough to want to churn to the end. It didn't need to excel, it already had a built-in audience who was familiar with the hooks and personalities. Gaiden II on the other hand, was a harsh mistress that demanded excellence at every turn. It didn't want me to win, it wanted to chip away at my soul. I just wanted to pound some heads and kick some butt, not be a true ninja master.
I don't believe that Burst Limit will have too long of a lifespan. It'll be a novelty until the next iteration of this franchise announces 50 characters, fully rendered episodes from the anime series, and improved cell shading. On the other hand, Ninja Gaiden II will prove to have an extremely long shelf-life, and will likely survive as a long-rumored ultra-hardcore gamer's game. Future games will be measured by this standard, and we might even be wowed by the incredibly bloody acrobatics that some intrepid masters will whip out of the combat engine. I'll likely revisit it when I can find it for about $10 on Craigslist or some bargain bin, to be honest.
But for right now, all I need is some cheesy, beefy aliens throwing colored energy beams at each other. I'm perfectly comfortable with that, even though I'm in the company of a bunch of 15 year olds.